The first thing I did as Brookdale’s senior director of customer experience was to pack my bags and move into Brookdale University Park in Denver. Prior to joining the company, I didn’t have any senior living or healthcare experience. As a marketing and customer experience professional, I have always believed that brands—and the people who manage them—must truly understand their customer. Effective brand managers understand their customer’s expectations, needs, desires, fears, likes, and dislikes. The best brands understand their overall journey before even becoming a customer.
With that in mind, I told my new boss that the only way to learn the business was to move in.
I pulled up to Brookdale University Park, checked in with the concierge, received a calendar of events and settled into my one-bedroom apartment. I ate three meals a day with residents, including a delicious grilled salmon and couscous dish for Moroccan month. I participated in game night with Sylvia, an 83-year-old widow. I spent time with Barbara, the health and wellness director who residents treated like a celebrity, as she patiently distributed medications. I learned needlepoint with Edna and the keys to a successful marriage from a couple who had been married for 60 years (which are separate TVs, hearing loss, and Dr. Ruth for those of you who are interested!). These new friendships and skills taught me more than any spreadsheet, PowerPoint, or interview ever could.
Expectations vs Reality
I’m going to make myself a bit vulnerable here and say that, quite honestly, I was nervous to move in. I had preconceived notions about what the community was going to be like, which were based on nothing more than stereotypes. I thought it was going to smell or be sad and lonely. Unfortunately, these are common misperceptions that many people have of senior living.
Let’s just say that the experience was the complete opposite of what I had thought. The community was vibrant, loving, caring, and happy. By the end of my week, I had 100 Grandmas and Grandpas who didn’t want me to leave. I have limited space in this blog, but I could—and should—write an entire book about this experience.
The closest thing I can compare it to is a resort for seniors. It’s hard to feel lonely when you have a calendar packed with opportunities to learn something new or to socialize. The residents were living fulfilling lives with purpose and meaning. They were making new friends and staying socially connected through outings, meals, and activities.
What impressed me the most was the relationships between associates and residents. Associates learn so much from their residents, so much so that many teared up when describing why they love their jobs. Residents had the same reaction when I asked them what the associates meant to them. They treat many of the associates like family. I know that if my parents lived here, I would go to bed each night with such peace of mind that they were in great hands.
Senior Living is Unlike Any Other Business
My biggest takeaway from the experience was that the brand/customer relationship is unlike anything I’ve experienced in my 30-year career. Our “customers” are “residents”—they LIVE with us—they are family, part of a community. They move into Brookdale and it becomes their home. We don’t just serve the resident, but their family as well. Many adult children make decisions for their parents and are very involved in their living and care plans. We have to consider THEIR needs as well. When they visit their mom or dad in the community, they should feel like they are visiting them at home.
I also realized this is the only business model where the customer lives with the brand 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They LIVE with our brand ALL THE TIME. There is no room for error, as Brookdale associates, we always have to be on. We always have to strive to exceed their expectations. We always have to try to resolve issues in a timely and professional manner. We always have to show that we care.
Lastly, senior living is a very complex business. It is three industries rolled into one: healthcare, hospitality, and real estate. Within that, Brookdale provides different service lines including independent living, assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing, and ancillary services such as home health and hospice. This means that we are delivering different experiences to suit each resident, tailored to their needs.
Moving Out and Moving Forward
Leaving Brookdale University Park was more difficult than I had imagined. Just one week and the community already felt like home. The biggest benefit of the experience is that there is no way you can possibly understand your customer unless you live their experience. My goal is to help every resident have the same warm, comforting experience I had. While this is a challenging task for a provider with nearly 900 communities in 46 states, we are getting better and better every day.